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Essential Field skills for Bird Photographers

Once you have mastered your DSLR camera, its settings, various shooting techniques etc you are mostly covered as far as the technical side of bird photography is concerned. However the difference between getting good shots and great shots is not just getting your exposure right, it depends on many factors including your understanding of the birds, their behavior, the way you approach them etc. In this article we will discuss some tips that will help you get close to the birds, read their body language, understand the various clues that they give away, sharpen your reflexes and thus vastly improve your success rate by being able to anticipate what the bird will do next.

Essential Field skills for Bird Photographers
Photo by: David Cook

1. Know Where to Look

The most important skill any birder should possess is the ability to spot the birds; one should have a basic understanding of the habitats of various species of birds. If you are visiting an area do a primary research of the lay of the land, the various habitats present etc

bird photography etiquette
Photo by: John & Fish

For example

If there are lakes in the region you can watch the lakesides for gulls, wildfowl, coots or other water birds. If there are beaches chances are you could find many species of shore birds, do an online search to find out more about the type of birds one could find in any particular location, there are many birding groups in the internet and you could easily find many helpful information like where to look for, what to expect, best times to visit, if needed where to get permits, weather conditions etc.

2. Study Your Subjects Well

bird photography
Photo by: John & Fish

Do spend a lot of time watching the birds, observe their behavior, find patterns, for example if you look closely you could see birds repeating certain things over and over like a bird coming to a flower for nectar, hovering-feeding-hovering- feeding - flying back then repeating this or birds when they are feeding chicks, the parents will fly off from the nest – come in with food – land on a nearby branch – observe the surroundings for a while – go to nest and feed the young – fly off – repeating the same sequence, coming back to land at the very same spot from which it observed the surroundings earlier. So if you observe closely you’ll know what’s going on and will be able to get much better shots.

3. Dress Appropriately

It is advisable to avoid vivid colors and wear dress that camouflage you well with the surroundings. The same goes for your equipment, camouflage covers like LensCoat work well to make your long lenses blend in with the scene.

4. Carry Plenty of Water and Food

Birding could extend much longer than you have initially planned; it is also very taxing on your resources, so it is important to remain hydrated. Carry some food and water with you, if needed you could throw some food to the birds to either earn their trust or to make them come closer for better shots.

5. Take Your Time

bird photography tips
Photo by: Danny Perez

Once you get to a location to photograph birds don’t be in too much of a hurry to start shooting. Do spend some time watching and assessing the scene; do take in details like the lay of the land, wind direction, which direction is the light coming from etc. also observe the birds behavior what species are present, are they active or are they resting, if they are active are they feeding, engaging in territorial fights, are they relaxed or agitated etc.

6. Approach Carefully

bird photography ideas
Photo by: Ali Arsh

Your success rate is directly proportional to your ability to get close to the birds without spooking them. Plan your approach, move slowly, smoothly, avoid erratic movements, conceal your long lenses (don’t hold them out in plain sight the birds feel threatened) take your time, move few feet then rest  give the birds some time to get used to your presence and then move. Whenever possible use your car as a mobile hide, birds are not threatened by the shape of a car but they will immediately fly off if you get out of the car. The human form is much more threatening than that of a vehicle.

7. Pay Attention to the Direction of Light and Wind

bird photography techniques
Photo by: FMJ Shooter

Ideal conditions for shooting birds are when the sun in behind you illuminating the birds, it is also important to consider the direction of the wind as it effects the birds flight behavior. Large birds in particular tend to take off and land into a head-wind for maximum lift. You can use this to anticipate the direction in which they will take off and land. Birds also turn into the wind even in midflight (either briefly or for longer periods – hovering).

The ideal birding condition is when you have the best combination of light direction and wind direction; meaning the bird which faces in to the wind is also facing in the direction of the light. Even though this seldom materializes it is good to know so you could aim to achieve it and be aware of any compromises you make.

8. Listen to the Birds Sounds

bird photography tutorial
Photo by: Stuart Williams

Birds like geese and wildfowl call out loudly to each other before them all take off; similarly you could easily be aware of the approach of larger birds such as swans by the sound caused by their wing beats which is very loud.

9. Understand Various Signs

When birds are agitated or when they are about to take off they give off many signs, for example birds lift their tail if they get agitated (may be by your approach) also most perching birds defecate before they take off. So if the bird you are approaching lifts its tail it’s a warning sign for you to stop your advances. Rest a while, give the bird time to relax and then move forward. And if the bird defecates, it is your signal to get ready for the flight shot.

The more time you spend observing and studying your subject the more you understand about them and the better your pictures will look, practice regularly and your skills will improve steadily enabling you to capture some great images.

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